Cactus pointers that won’t hurt botanists

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Betsey Thomson

The Well-Tended Garden by Betsey Thomson

Thank goodness for cacti and succulents during the winter. Those good old standbys aren’t fussy about the heat and low humidity and require little water. That is most of them, as the jungle natives such as our Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving or Christmas cacti do need regular watering, but the desert natives could care less.

Cacti never go completely dormant but do need some rest time to produce flowers. Oh, it doesn’t matter if you say cacti or cactuses for more than one cactus, both are correct. Succulents react the same.  Display them together in a sunny window, creating a ‘desert garden,’ but keep them in individual pots.

By covering the soil in each pot with sand or fine gravel, the illusion of the desert is created. My friend has added miniature animals and such to her desert on the sill of a large bay window. As long as the containers drain they are not fussy.

Similar needs species can be planted together in one container to create an arid garden. The trick is to research what each plant needs before planting. Often cacti and succulents are available in small pots without any family information, and certain cacti have blooms or other varieties grafted onto them.

Most will want a cooler place to rest in the winter so they can flower. (Don’t expect grand performances.)  If flowers are desired, let the heat drop below 60 degrees at night. Imitate the desert environment for cacti.  Succulents don’t mind lower temps at all but look better with a bit warmer conditions.

Remember, succulents are jungle born. Both species are slow growers and require very little in the food department, especially nitrogen. Special formulas for them are available as is sharp sandy soils. The sand also helps stop cacti from tipping over by keeping the pots heavy.cactus

Because cacti store water, overwatering and over feeding the plants will create a mushy mess. If you have used an aloe for medicinal reasons you know how much liquid is in a stem. A few drops of moisture won’t kill them, but be careful with clumped bottom succulents. Many succulent leaves are shaped to collect moisture, and too much is disastrous. I like to spritz the plants, using one squeeze of the handle per plant about once a month mainly to control dust and any spider mites. Spider mites love low humidity conditions.

Be careful with cacti plants around pets and young children. Some have barbed spines like fish hooks. If you do get stabbed by one, remove it right away with sticky tape. If one should break off or you are not sure the entire barb has been removed, put on some white glue, let it dry then remove. Gum works well on cat noses!

Visit the Roger Williams Botanical Center and enjoy the succulents and cacti along with some tropical atmosphere. Don’t forget the Rhode Island Flower Show from Feb. 19 to 22 at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence, and the Central Mass Flower Show at the DCU Center in Worcester from Feb. 27 to March 1.

Betsey Thomson is a University of Rhode Island lifetime master gardener. Contact her at

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